Friday, February 12, 2010

A mother and cancer - Part 1: "The shoe has dropped"

Mom sleeping on the couch with dad, circa 1982. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

The first shoe dropped 10-years ago when my mother was diagnosed with cancer (squamous cell carcinoma) in her throat. She was only 53 at the time, but already she'd lived about 14-years longer than she thought she would.

My mother did everything early - by choice - because she figured she’d be dead before she turned 40, just like her mother who died from ovarian cancer at the age of 39.

My mom was only 13 when that happened, but really she was more like 30. She had to be. For two years she watched in horror as radioactive rods were thrust vaginally into my grandmother’s body as a last ditch effort to kill the cancer. It didn’t work, and witnessing her poor mother having her “insides burned out” before she died, left my mother with a minefield of emotional scars that never really healed.

While my grandmother was slowly dying, it was my mother who did all the cooking and cleaning for her family - way too much to lump onto the shoulders of a young girl trying to come to grips with mortality. And when my grandfather remarried shortly after my grandmother’s death, it put my mother over the edge. She wanted out, and she found her out by getting married at a young age – real young, 16.

My grandfather, of course, didn’t approve of my mother’s plans, so she crossed the Ohio border with my dad and got married in Michigan where it was legal to wed at such a young age without parental consent. But when she returned to Ohio, she was stung again, this time by her school, who expelled her for being married - not pregnant, just married. The school didn't want her "influencing" other girls in her class, so my mom, the smartest person I ever met, never graduated from high school, and that left behind even more scars that never really healed.

When she was 17, she had her first kid - my sister Dina - and by the time she was 23, she had three more. I can’t imagine having one kid at that age, let alone four, but I never thought about any of that back then. Back then I only knew it was cool having the youngest mom come and visit my school on parent’s day. While other kid’s parents looked old to me, my mom always looked young and pretty. It made me so happy I wore it like a badge of honor.

Unfortunately, the Tour de Kids took its toll on my mother’s reproductive organs. Five years after my youngest brother was born; she had most of her ovaries removed as well as a hysterectomy. At that point, two things were certain, at 28, she was done having kids, and if she did die before she was 40, it wouldn’t be from ovarian cancer. Again, more scars, but at least these scars would heal.

Through it all, my mom (still a child herself) raised me, my brothers, and my sister, on heavy doses of The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Moody Blues and The Who. She introduced us to rock operas like Tommy, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar. My dad was guilty too, often looking like he and Peter Fonda had just walked off the set of Easy Rider with his long sideburns and a denim jacket that had a giant marijuana patch sewn on the back above the words Do yourself a favor! To me, my parents had it all figured out, they knew all the answers, they were, dare I say it ... cool! But now I realize they were just growing up too - right along with her kids.

When my youngest brother flew the nest and the house was finally empty, my mother was barely 40. She’d outlived her mother ... and her prophecy. The years that followed wouldn't be so kind. Her sister Lori would die young from lung cancer, and her brother Frankie would die young as well from a freak allergic reaction. She was devastated. Again, more scars.

When my wife was pregnant with my youngest son, we got the news about my own mother's cancer. Cancer comes in so many packages, you never know what to expect. Some people beat it; some people don't. And some people will just battle it, and battle it, and battle it, until it finally kills them. 

I didn't know what my mother would do, or how she would react, but I knew my mother wasn’t about to go to battle and lose. She’d spent several years working for the Erie County Chapter of the American Cancer Society. She’d seen plenty of cancer’s ravaging effects up close, but more importantly, she’d also seen the ravaging effects of cancer treatments. No, this wasn’t a path my mother would travel. She was fine with surgery as a treatment option, but there was no way she was going to go through radiation or chemotherapy.

For the past ten years my mother has cheated death. In 2005 she even spent a month in the hospital in a coma, but somehow she pulled through. “God has chewed me up and spit me out so many times I’ve lost count.” She told me. With every recurrence, she’s been lucky enough to have the skilled doctors at the Cleveland Clinic cut away at the cancer and buy her a few more years. A few more years of seeing my kids, her only grandchildren, get older - a few more years of watching her own kids continue to grow.

Slicing out a cancerous tonsil bought her an extra birthday; the removal of her soft palette - another Christmas; hacking away a third of her tongue – the Fourth of July. Whenever the cancer would return, the doctors would cut ... and cut ... and cut, until they hit clean margins. 

But this time it’s different. This time there are no clean margins. This time there’s nothing left to cut. This time a tumor has lodged itself deep inside her throat near her epiglottis, spreading to her lymph nodes as well. This time the cancer is invasive - Stage IV. This time she's either going to have to undergo the chemotherapy and radiation treatments ... or be dead in six months.

After 10-years, the other shoe has dropped.


…to be continued.




  1. I feel for you Lon, my mom had tongue cancer about 10 years ago, and it was tough going. All teeth removed, radiation, hyperbaric treatments, and she is still ornery enough to be here and kicking :o)

  2. Just beautiful, Lon. The last month of my mother's life (she died from breast cancer that spread all over) was the most vivid and beautiful of my life -- and also the very saddest. This photograph is especially touching. Your family is in my prayers.